Saturday, March 31, 2007

Weird and Weirder… (Part 1)

From ghosties and ghoulies,
And long-leggety beasties,
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord deliver us.

- Old Scottish Prayer

Do you believe in ghosts and other strange things that go bump, or otherwise disrupt the night – or perhaps even the day, if they’re malicious or mischievous enough? I have to admit, I’m a pretty hardcore skeptic. I don’t believe in UFOs or ghosts or aliens who abduct innocent earthlings from their beds to poke and prod them. If there are aliens, and I’m sure there’s something else living out there somewhere, and there is probably a lot of intelligent life in the cosmos, but they surely have more pressing things to do than pick on us. However, that being said, I do have a history of strange experiences that lasts till this day, and I really can’t explain much of it away. Let me take you back to when it began – or at least when it became very noticeable.

In the summer of 1981, a year after my discharge from the Marine Corps, I enrolled at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. After four years in the Marines and a year spent working hard at a variety of jobs, there wasn’t a lot that I was afraid of. That was a good thing – a very good thing.

After commuting my first couple of quarters, I moved with three friends into an old house a couple of blocks from campus. Originally there were the four of us who'd agreed to split the rental cost of the house – Mike, Andy, T.K. and me – but soon Ron, a friend of Andy's, an English major transferring from the University of Georgia, moved in with us.

The house was a two-story white wood-frame, and the inside walls were plaster. The front door opened to a small entrance way which led to T.K.’s room on the left and the living room on the right. In the center, there was a large open room which we called “Central Receiving” because that’s where we put all our stuff while we were getting settled in. Central Receiving opened into the kitchen and into a very small square hallway leading into my room and Andy’s room, and a tiny cramped set of jury-rigged stairs leading to one big room with a bathroom and shower upstairs. My room was the smallest and had two doors, one leading to the kitchen the other to the small hallway.

The first time I recall noticing anything strange was one morning shortly after Ron moved in. His stuff, including a large box of books from literature courses, was sitting in Central Receiving, and I was in the kitchen cooking some sausage for my breakfast. There was a double sink that dripped constantly, and the faucet was over a glass of water in the right sink. The drip-drip-drip was annoying, so I pushed it over the center so it would drip silently on the metal . Since watching sausage fry is pretty boring, I walked to Central Receiving and began lifting Ron’s books out of the box one-by-one looking at titles. I went back to the stove to turn the sausage, and started to return to Central Receiving and noticed drip-drip-drip. The faucet was over the glass of water again. I pushed it back to center thinking I must have meant to move it and just thought I really had. I looked at a few more book titles before returning to the stove for my sausage. When I went to the cabinet for a plate I heard drip-drip-drip. This time I knew I had moved the faucet. It was tight and didn’t move freely; it would have taken a stiff push to place it back over the right sink to drip annoyingly in the glass of water. Odd, I thought… no, not odd – creepy!

Not long afterwards I came home from class and opened the door to my room. It was late afternoon and the room was dark – I had the window covered with a blanket, since we bachelors didn’t know much about putting up curtains. As I opened the door something came shooting out of the room and hit me square in the center of the chest. I saw the blur sailing toward me, but I didn’t have time to react. I picked the object up off the floor – a piece of hard candy, like a generic red Jolly Rancher. I flipped on the light and searched the tiny room. Nothing out of the ordinary – no hidden catapult or rigged strings. I mentioned it to my roommates, but they denied knowing anything about the candy and said they had never even seen a piece of candy like that.

A few weeks later something similar happened. I opened my door and, of all things, a potato came flying out of the room and hit me so hard that it left a red mark on my chest. This time my girlfriend was with me. Fortunately she was out of the way, but she saw it happen. We searched the room. Just like the previous time, there was nothing, but the potato had sailed out of the room like it had been hurled by a baseball pitcher.

Several other strange things happened over the next few months before I got married and moved out of the house. One evening while I was lying in bed reading, the light in the little hallway came on for a few seconds. I thought maybe Mike or Ron had returned – both of them were out of town for the weekend. I got up and ran up the cramped stairs; luckily I didn’t trip and break my neck. I checked everybody’s rooms. There was nobody there except me and… whatever.

Meanwhile, Andy had his baby grand piano moved down from Covington, Georgia, and set it up in Central Receiving. One night as I lay in bed trying to go to sleep a key struck – and sustained. I jumped up and ran out to see who was getting ready to play the piano at that hour. You guessed it. Nobody was there.

Another evening, T.K. and I were the only two at home. He was in his room in a separate corner of the house, and I was in my little room. There came a loud sound like the crashing of a box of glasses. The sound came from Central Receiving. I ran into the room to see what had happened. T.K. came in a few seconds later. "Did you hear that , Jimbo?" he asked. I told him I had, and we both searched the room and the kitchen and the living room, but there was nothing disturbed anywhere. Everybody had begun to talk about my ghost, and T.K. just looked at me and said, "The ghost! " We laughed it off nervously and went back to our rooms.

Another phenomenon that I was experiencing at this time was that various outdoor lights would go out as I walked or drove by. I mentioned this to some of my friends, and some of them even experienced it with me. One evening I was walking with a girlfriend (not the one who witnessed the flying potato) across the campus. There were two lights that stood on either side of the steps to Atkinson Hall, the building where business administration classes were held. They were mounted on brick columns and covered with large spherical globes. As we walked by, the first light went out. The girl looked at me and said, “That was weird!” I said, “I’m used to it.” When I made the return trip across campus alone a few minutes later, as I walked by that same light, it came back on. I stopped for a second, took a deep breath, then continued walking.

I talked about these things with a good friend of mine who had an interest in strange phenomenon. His eyes got bigger as I relayed story after story. “It’s a poltergeist!” he exclaimed. “The house isn’t haunted; you are!” I dismissed the whole thing. “There’s got to be a logical, non-supernatural explanation for all of this,” I reminded myself. My two youngest sons are amazed that all of these things could have happened to me – and that we continue to experience strange phenomenon on a regular basis – and I can still be so skeptical. I still don’t believe in ghosts or the paranormal. I’m sure there are things that go on all the time that we simply don’t have the empirical foundation to explain, but I hold my ground on my disbelief. Nevertheless…I still get the creeps walking around this house in the dark. Why? That’s for part 2 of this story, which I’ll tell you soon.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Ocean

This is a short stream of consciousness piece from 2004 that still moves me:

Grains of sand, gold and sharp, tiny festering pinpricks of granulated discomfort, bubbles in the seaweed, riding the surface, rising with the waves – it is scary for me to visit the ocean, to see all that water riding the curve of the earth – how does it stay in there? It looks like it will ride in and swallow me up. But after a little while, when I meet the ocean at the edge of the sand, the breeze whispers past and comforts me, and the ocean itself gently laps at my feet, teasing and playful. Fear transforms, and like darkness melting into the soft light of dawn, fear becomes wonder. It almost takes my breath away, and I feel like I have come home.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Books, Reading and the Spirit

Marcel Proust wrote, “Reading is at the threshold of spiritual life; it can introduce us to it; it does not constitute it.” (Quoted in The Seven Stairs, by Stuart Brent, p. 127)

The experience of reading is a spiritual exercise. This is true, I believe, of all reading, not just that which is explicitly religious or spiritual. The book is the talisman of that sacred act. Nothing else, in my experience, can compare to the magic and wonder of a book. To feed this wonder in my life, I have collected literally thousands of them, from old paperback westerns with pages yellowed by age to elegant hardcover reference books with pristine pages of acid-free paper.

This joyful addiction began in earnest when I was a teenager, even though I had amassed quite a stash of Little Golden Books much earlier. When I was a boy, one of my favorite playmates was my cousin Betsy Turner. One afternoon we were visiting her grandparents, Mr. Homer and Mrs. Anna Jordan, in Monticello. Betsy and I were playing in her grandparent’s room, and beside their bed was a table, and beneath that table in neat stacks were more books than I had ever seen in one place in my life. They all belonged to Mr. Homer, who was an avid reader of westerns and adventure novels. Several years later, Mr. Homer passed away, and one evening while I was getting ready to go to town to hang out at the Dairy Queen with most of the other bored teenagers in the county, Mrs. Anna called and asked me to stop by her house when I came to town, because she had something she wanted to give me. When I got there, Mrs. Anna had several boxes full of Mr. Homer’s books. “I know how much you admired them, so they’re yours.” Christmas morning had never been this exciting. The back of my ‘66 Buick Riviera was full of books!

I went to the Dairy Queen and spent a little while just hanging out, but the books kept luring me back to my car, where I’d sit and pick up a handful and thumb through them. That was one night on the town that I couldn’t wait to get home.

My daddy could never understand this affinity for books. He had purchased a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the 1970 edition, which I adored (and which I still have, by the way), and to his way of thinking, that was all the books anybody could or should ever want. My daddy never cared if I drank beer or liquor, it couldn’t have bothered him in the least, but I had to hide my book addiction from him.

While I was in the Marine Corps, the collection continued to build. When I was going to basic electricity & electronics and avionics schools at NAS (Naval Air Station) Memphis/Millington, Tennessee, I had a roommate who had the top of his wall locker literally packed full of fantasy and science fiction paperbacks, including just about every Edgar Rice Burroughs novel ever written. He graduated from his school and got orders to another duty station, and he decided he didn’t want to lug all those books with him, so he asked, “You want ‘em?” Well… yeah! When I went home on leave that Christmas, I filled one sea bag with those books and could barely get it clamped shut. They were waiting for me at home when I got out of the Marine Corps, and it was a grand reunion.

In the years since, one of my favorite pastimes has been hanging out at bookstores and used book sales. Several years ago, my brother, an avid gun enthusiast, invited me to go with him to a gun and knife show in Atlanta. He bought two .22 rifles, and I bought… yep, four books. He said I was the only person he knew who could go to a gun show and come away with books. One of those books happened to be a flight manual for the P-47D Thunderbolt (airplanes are another passion), one of my favorite WWII aircraft, so it wasn’t really a completely nerdy thing to do.

These days I keep myself surrounded by books, and whenever I visit a home where there are no books, I feel completely out of place. It makes me more nervous than if I’d just walked in on somebody naked. Usually if I’m going to anybody’s house for any length of time, I bring a book (or, more likely, books) anyway, so I’m not usually uncomfortable for long. Well, let me get back to my latest spiritual endeavor, A.G. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life: It’s Spirit, Conditions, Methods, one of the two dozen or so books I’m reading at the moment. And I wish you…happy reading.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Dreams Stirred by a Visit to My Empty Boyhood Home

There is no way I can translate the visceral hold my childhood home had, and still has, on me. The place is no longer mine -- my brother and I finally realized we couldn't hold onto it forever, and neither of us had the money or the time to keep the place up. Before we let it go, I made a couple of trips to visit on the premise that I was going to clean the place up, but I was actually passing precious time with an old friend. I said my good-byes through tears so thick I couldn't see anything more than a blur -- like a dream fading away.

I've found that the exercise of "free-writing" or "stream-of-consciousness" is not only good writing practice, but it's often therapeutic. In this type of writing you basically let go, it goes where it will; puntuation and polish are secondary, but even that seems to add to the magic of it. Here are some images that streamed from deep within me after one of those last trips home:

Willow branches dance and leap in the wind, sunshine fire flashes like lightning in the shadows...layers of soft dirt are lifted up on the swirling breeze and take wing on the liquid waves of soft warm air...the chimera of swirling dust plays tricks on my eyes, and I wonder what it’s all about, what it means... I search through the meadow looking deep into the grass, trying to find something that I lost when I was a little boy, a beloved toy that came from a penny gum machine, a cheap trinket that is more priceless than gold to a naïve little boy, barefoot in dirty green shorts, a motley face, traces of dirt smeared against the chocolate milk that trickled out of the corners of his favorite’s a yellow cup with a top on it, like a Tupperware cup...maybe it was a Tupperware cup, I don’t know...there are so many things that I remember, and so many things that I can’t seem to place, I can’t put all the pieces together...I was afraid of elves and fairies, afraid that little people dwelled in my house... now my house is empty, and I wish that the little people did dwell there, that they would protect it, keep it safe -- on Saturday nights there was country music at the big Hillsboro dance, and people came from all over: Monticello and Jackson and Juliette...there was live music by Harry Lynn and the Stardusters – oh, how I would love to taste the sounds of that sweet homemade stardust once seems that it has been forever ago, and I suppose it might as well have been, because when something is over and past, it’s far as I know forever, and forever is a terribly long time to long for something that doesn’t even exist anymore...there is no longer a barelegged little boy with cowlicks in his brown hair roaming the fields and woods and dirt sidewalks of Hillsboro, Georgia -- before the ringer washing machine came to live on our back porch, there were heavy black-iron wash pots of boiling water for washing clothes... the fires that sent water to boiling have long since grown cold, but the memory of the tender smell of burning wood in the distance, like fragrant incense, is closing in on me taking me back...the sun glints in my eye, through my eyelashes I can see it, experience it, but nobody else can, and I want so badly for someone else to feel this with me... but they have their own experiences and I can’t know them...I can project from my own experiences and try to imagine what it may be like for them -- maybe there is a way to feel what another feels...true, deep it possible? There is so much I don’t know, so much I cannot fathom...maybe there is magic...maybe there are ghosts and little people living in my little house, like I believed when I was a little boy... but the little house is no longer mine... only the dreams...only the dreams.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Wayback Machine… Compassion and love of neighbor

This is a passage adapted from a theological journal I kept for a systematic theology class I took at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia. Originally dated 9/16/92, this particular event still resonates deeply within me, because of the problems and disappointments I’ve experienced with the church since that time, and because of the hope that I realize abides in the church that properly lives out its professed faith in the Compassionate Christ.

September 16, 1992

Tonight my friends and I were stopped behind a row of cars at a red light on Moreland Avenue when my buddy, who was driving, said, “There’s someone laying in the road up there.” A myriad of thoughts flooded my mind. Perhaps it was a drunk passed out. Or maybe it was someone who had been hit by a car and was lying there dying. My wife and I had watched as a man was struck by a car while crossing the street a couple of years before, and I’ve never shaken the horror of the sound, of watching the broken body fly like a limp rag doll through the air for what seemed like an eternity, and of the pool of coagulating blood gathering around his head as he lay on the pavement in a heap. My thoughts were interrupted when my buddy said, “Everyone’s just driving around him.” I immediately jumped out of the car and ran ahead to discover a black man, probably about my age, who had fallen off his bicycle and had apparently broken his leg. Nobody else had even bothered to stop and check on him.

Here was a man lying in the road at a terribly busy intersection, and people were just driving around him as if he were merely a nuisance, thrown down on the pavement to interrupt the smooth progression of their evening. The man who had been beaten by robbers in the story of “The Good Samaritan” came instantly to mind. I wondered how many of the people passing were Christians. It was a Wednesday night; how many were on their way home from Bible studies or prayer meetings. Perhaps none of them, but that’s very unlikely. After I got to him, a young lady came running over saying she was a nurse. Someone went to call 911. A young man, dressed well and wearing a tie (was he coming home from church?) came running up saying he too was a nurse.

As I stood with the man directing traffic so no one would hit him and waiting for help to arrive, I saw the curious passers by straining for a good look, trying to see what strange event might be unfolding on the road in their paths to wherever. I imagined the stares of the curious at the homeless who line our city streets, at the mangled homes of hurricane victims in southern Florida, at the emaciated bodies of starving Somalis lined across TV screens. How often do we strain for a better look from the comfort of our protected spaces? And the words of Jesus, speaking about the beaten man, the religious leaders, and the socially unacceptable Samaritan, rang clearly in my head – “Which one of these was this man’s neighbor?”

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Time, and Time Again

One of my favorite spots in the world was the front porch of my Aunt Bet’s house. When I was a teenager, I spent many a long happy summer evening sitting in one of the white cane-bottomed rocking chairs with my feet propped on the banister just a few feet from one of the most magnificent magnolia trees on the planet. It was heaven, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. There was something about those treasured summer nights that was magical. I didn’t look out across the future to a time (which is now) when I’d look back and long for those times. It was pure existential pleasure, and the thought of those times ending never seriously entered my mind. Of course I’ve always had a stark frightening realization of the fleeting temporal nature of people, places, and situations.

There is something about the passing of time, about being unable to embrace it and have it stop for even the briefest wisp of a moment, that forbids my senses even a shadow of understanding. The opening line of a long-running soap opera always began, “Like the sands through the hour-glass, so are the days of our lives.” But even the sand and its movement is something concrete, something we can witness and take in with mortal senses, but the time that the sands of the hour-glass measures still eludes our comprehension, defies our straining glimpse into its mysteries.

One thing the discipline of journaling does it to bring full force into my consciousness the ceaseless flowing of time. It is wonderful to be able to look back over the events, people, situations, and even the dreams of my life, but at the same time it is somewhat unnerving to ponder that today’s entry and the events and thoughts recorded in it are immediately swept into history. That history grows more distant in a smooth, even motion, but for some reason it is startling to stand at certain points along the way and look back and realize just how distant points in my history have become. It’s much like watching a child grow up. You see that child each day, and she grows all the time, but every so often there is a startling epiphany of just how much this child has grown. It’s almost as if you suddenly saw her grow before your eyes. Without the objective evidence of a date’s notation, it would often be difficult to remember if certain things happened two years ago or five.

It’s amazing how often reflection about time itself comes up in my journal entries. It’s such a compelling phenomenon, I suppose it’s inevitable, especially considering how focused on the specific date and hour each entry keeps me. I’ve often tried to reconcile my aging with memories of my youth. I remember once when my mother, starting into her eighties, looked at me with a sense of panic and said, “I’m old! How did this happen?” She was having one of those epiphanies of existential terror that we all go through from time to time, and no doubt these epiphanies become more dramatic to the soul as we get older.

Here’s a reflection on this very topic from a past journal entry. It was written on a loose sheet rather than in my regular journal, and the only notation of time was a year – and a very fateful year, because not long after I wrote it, my mother died:

From an undated journal entry in 2001:

The child...I watch my little girl (15 now) walking about the kitchen, and I look at her with a heart that could almost burst with love, and I think...what happened to the little girl who was four? Then I think ahead, ten years, twenty, and where will this little girl be...the child? But then I think, the child is there...the 4 year old, the infant, the 12 year old – all there. How about me?...I'm still that little boy sitting on the couch wearing green shorts and picking up gumballs with my bare toes. And Mama...still John White's little girl...and Grandpa, still a little boy growing up in the 19th all of us the child is there. No one will enter the kingdom of heaven, Christ said, unless he or she becomes like a child.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Wayback Machine... Night Shadow

Just a brief clip from my journal, dated 12-21-05:

I awoke sometime during the night when there were no shadows, because the night was all shadow. Wrapped up in shadow I lay there till I nearly burst from its exquisite softness. My hand reached out and touched the muffled blackness, pushed through it and came back to me to lie limply on my pillow beside my head. My eyes ached looking into it, so perfectly deep and infinite in its caress. For a moment I thought perhaps I had died.